What is Packet Sniffing? (2024)

What is a Packet Sniffer?

A Packet Sniffer is hardware or software that connects to a network to monitor, analyse, log, and capture all the network traffic. Historically, packet sniffers were small portable appliances that can be plugged into the network to sniff traffic on-demand if there is a suspected network issue. Packet sniffing can also be done using a laptop and packet sniffing software – such as Wireshark® or tcpdump.

Packet sniffers are valuable tools for troubleshooting network outages or performance issues and investigating cybersecurity incidents. The network that you are sniffing packets from may be a physical network such as an Ethernet LAN, or a virtual or cloud network.

Tools for sniffing packets may also be referred to as a network monitor, network recorder, packet sniffing software, packet sniffing appliance, packet capture system, network analyzer, packet analyzer, or protocol analyzer.

Is packet sniffing the same as packet capture?

The term packet sniffing is sometimes used as a synonym for “packet capture” and both do the same thing - it’s simply a matter of scale.

Packet capture is often seen as being the “big brother” of packet sniffing. Packet sniffing is typically done on-demand, using portable packet sniffer tools and usually only collects small volumes of traffic.

Packet capture solutions, on the other hand, are usually deployed as a permanent component of network infrastructure. They are designed to record much larger volumes of traffic and at much higher speeds.

For a detailed overview of packet capture see “What is Network Packet Capture?

Learn more

How does a Packet Sniffer work?

When monitoring a physical network, a SPAN (Switched Port ANalyzer) – also known as a “port mirror” or TAP (Test Access Point) can be used to provide a copy of all the network packets to the packet sniffer.

Packet sniffing software can also be deployed on a PC, server or VM to monitor the packets on a specific interface or virtual interface.

What is Packet Sniffing? (1)

A packet sniffer uses a dedicated network interface (monitoring port) set to “promiscuous mode”. This allows the network interface to receive all the traffic on the network regardless of the traffic’s intended destination. Every packet received on the monitoring port is analyzed, logged, and written to disk. Other devices on the network are not aware of, and are unaffected by, packet sniffing. For this reason, it is often referred to as passive monitoring or out-of-band monitoring.

A range of different metrics and charts are regularly available from packet sniffing tools including bandwidth utilization, conversation tables, application reports and performance information. These may be instantaneous views or provide a historical view of weeks or months of network traffic.

What is Packet Sniffing? (2)

Packets are usually captured to disk to enable in-depth troubleshooting down to the packet layer. Packet sniffers can save the captured packets in a portable format called a PCAP file. There are several pcap formats.

For a detailed overview of pcap formats, see “What is a PCAP file?

Learn more

Where Should You Sniff Packets From?

When troubleshooting network performance or cybersecurity issues you should deploy a packet sniffer as close to the trouble spot as possible. For example if your web server is having issues, sniff the Ethernet segment it is connected to if you can, or capture the traffic at a common gateway. Sometimes the root cause is downstream from the system showing symptoms, for example a different network segment or a hop point from one network segment to another may be congested. It helps if you have the flexibility to connect your sniffer to various points in your network on demand, this is where a Network Packet Broker can help.

Security scenarios or continuous performance monitoring using packet sniffing may require you to permanently connect a snifferadjacent to a gateway or firewall so you can monitor important traffic 24 x 7.

Benefits of Packet Sniffing

The old saying of network professionals, “the truth is in the packets” always rings true. Troubleshooting issues is difficult when you can’t see what is happening on the network. Just as CCTV camera footage can speed up crime investigations, data collected using packet sniffing allows you to see exactly what is occurring on the network and zero-in on the root cause.

Packet sniffing attacks can potentially represent a significant threat to network security, involving methods where attackers monitor network traffic to illegally access and manipulate sensitive data. Understanding these attacks is crucial for implementing effective security measures and preventing potential breaches.

Incorporating network monitoring into the workflow enhances the ability to continuously observe and manage network performance and security. This function is crucial for detecting packet sniffing attacks, securing networks, and optimizing network environments by providing insights about network traffic and performance. Teams that use packet sniffing, coupled with network monitoring, resolve cybersecurity threats, performance issues, and network outages faster and with greater confidence, especially when they have access to Always-on Packet Capture.

On-Demand vs Always-On Packet Sniffing

As mentioned earlier, the traditional use for packet sniffing was to take a portable packet analyzer and physically connect it to the network or device you are trying to troubleshoot. This approach has significant downsides:

  1. You need to wait for the problem to occur again
  2. The connection of the TAP and packet sniffer might require a link outage
  3. You may not have physical access to the network you need to monitor – for example if it is in a remote datacenter or remote office.

A better approach is to connect your packet sniffer to key points in your network and continuously record and analyze all the traffic. Then, when a problem occurs, you can rewind and review exactly what occurred, resolve the issue, and move on without having to wait. Packet sniffing tools have evolved into continuous, always-on packet capture solutions for this very reason.

What are the Alternatives to Packet Sniffing?

NetFlow is metadata that is really more of a complement to, ratherthan an alternative to, packet sniffing. It provides high level summarization and logging of network flows but lacks the actual packet capture part. While this information is useful for spotting whether something unusual has happened on the network, the details you need to determine exactly what happened may be missing without the more detailed packet payloads. Combining NetFlow and full packet data gives you the best of both worlds.

See NetFlow Versus Full Packet Capturefor an explanation of the differences between NetFlow and full packet capture and the pros-and-cons of each.

Learn more

Does My Firewall Offer Packet Capture?

Well sort of …

Some firewalls provide network traffic analysis and also enablelimited packet capture capability. Typically, they will only record a handful of packets – sufficient just to record what firewall rule was triggered by the traffic. Unfortunately, this is rarely enough data to allow you to troubleshoot most problems.

In addition, your firewall is a precious resource that should be focused on protecting your network. Logging, analysis, and packet capture are resource intensive tasks that impact the performance of networking devices. It is much better to offload packet capture to a purpose-built device and let your network devices – firewalls, routers, switches etc. - focus on what they are really intended for.

Security and Privacy Risks with Packet Sniffers

Packet sniffers have access to potentially unencrypted private and/or sensitive information transferred over a network. Someone with access to the sniffed packets can potentially reassemble data or files contained within the packets, or even extract sensitive information such as passwords, usernames, or other information that may be damaging if made public.

Malware or other types of malicious content may be contained within the packets recorded by a packet sniffer. So care must be taken when handling PCAP files so as not to infect other computer systems. Emailing or saving a PCAP file may trigger virus scanners or IDS/IPS systems. And replaying or reassembling a PCAP could unleash damaging malware. These actions should only be done carefully by experienced professionals and only in a protected or sandboxed environment.

When saving or storing recorded packet data, organizations should take the same care as they would with any other sensitive information. The data may be classified as protected information under the laws of various state or federal governments - including GDPR, ADPPA, HIPAA, etc. - and using a packet sniffer may be considered as collecting private and/or sensitive information.

Security can be enhanced when PCAPs are strongly encrypted with password security, and stored in a secure location, with access to that data strictly limited to authorized personnel with appropriate security clearance.


Packet sniffers have evolved into continuous capture and recordingsystems that are powerful tools for troubleshooting any threat or network event. Teams that use these tools benefit from more efficient and accurate incident response, and faster resolution of cyber incidents, performance issues and network outages.

What is Packet Sniffing? (2024)


What is meant by packet sniffing? ›

Packet sniffing is a method of detecting and assessing packet data sent over a network. It can be used by administrators for network monitoring and security. However, packet sniffing tools can also be used by hackers to spy or steal confidential data.

Why do hackers use packet sniffing? ›

Packet sniffing is a hacking technique that involves collecting data packets that travel through an unencrypted computer network. Packet sniffers monitor the data packets in network traffic, with the aim of intercepting sensitive information (like personal financial details) to sell or use in other attacks.

What is an example of a packet sniffing attack? ›

An example of packet sniffing is when an attacker uses a packet sniffing tool to intercept unencrypted login credentials being transmitted over a public Wi-Fi network, gaining unauthorized access to an individual's online accounts.

Is packet sniffing a bad thing? ›

Packet sniffing attacks can potentially represent a significant threat to network security, involving methods where attackers monitor network traffic to illegally access and manipulate sensitive data. Understanding these attacks is crucial for implementing effective security measures and preventing potential breaches.

Is it illegal to packet sniff? ›

Legality: Packet sniffing can be legal under certain circ*mstances, such as when it's done with the explicit consent of network owners or when it's done for the purpose of network security analysis. However, in many cases, packet sniffing without permission is illegal and can result in criminal charges.

Is packet sniffing eavesdropping? ›

Eavesdropping, also known as sniffing or snooping, relies on unsecured network communications to access data in transit between devices.

Is packet sniffing the same as spoofing? ›

In simple terms, packet Sniffing is listening in on other people's communications. Packet Spoofing is the dynamic presentation of fake network traffic that impersonates someone else. Packet Sniffing is a passive attack since attackers cannot mutilate the system in any way.

Is Wireshark a packet sniffer? ›

Wireshark is a network protocol analyzer, or an application that captures packets from a network connection, such as from your computer to your home office or the internet. Packet is the name given to a discrete unit of data in a typical Ethernet network. Wireshark is the most often-used packet sniffer in the world.

How does sniffing work? ›

Sniffing is a process of monitoring and capturing all data packets passing through given network. Sniffers are used by network/system administrator to monitor and troubleshoot network traffic. Attackers use sniffers to capture data packets containing sensitive information such as password, account information etc.

What are the 2 types of sniffing? ›

Types of Sniffing. Sniffing can be either Active or Passive in nature.

Is packet sniffing the same as IP spoofing? ›

In simple terms, packet Sniffing is listening in on other people's communications. Packet Spoofing is the dynamic presentation of fake network traffic that impersonates someone else. Packet Sniffing is a passive attack since attackers cannot mutilate the system in any way.

Does a VPN protect against packet sniffing? ›

Use a VPN service What is a VPN? It will encrypt your traffic and hide your IP, so no one will be able to inspect it and see what you do online. Services like NordVPN offer both enhanced privacy and protection against threats like packet sniffing attacks.

What is the difference between scanning and sniffing? ›

Sniffing is the term generally used for traffic monitoring within a network, while port scanning is used to find out information about a remote network. Both sniffing and port scanning have the same objective—to find system vulnerabilities—but they take different approaches.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Amb. Frankie Simonis

Last Updated:

Views: 6228

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (76 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Amb. Frankie Simonis

Birthday: 1998-02-19

Address: 64841 Delmar Isle, North Wiley, OR 74073

Phone: +17844167847676

Job: Forward IT Agent

Hobby: LARPing, Kitesurfing, Sewing, Digital arts, Sand art, Gardening, Dance

Introduction: My name is Amb. Frankie Simonis, I am a hilarious, enchanting, energetic, cooperative, innocent, cute, joyous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.